Danish tournament organizer BLAST have ended their controversial partnership with NEOM, a Saudi Arabian state-backed city development, amid public outcry and pressure from partner teams and on-air talent, as first reported by HLTV and confirmed by ESPN.
The decision to end the partnership came as many partner teams of BLAST and both current and former talent, such as former commentator Jason "Moses" O'Toole, publicly and privately lambasted BLAST owner RFRSH Entertainment for entering into a deal with NEOM. On Monday, BLAST executives held a meeting with leaders from their partner teams informing them of the decision. BLAST did not respond to a request for comment.
BLAST is the second major esports company to cancel their deal with NEOM amid public outcry. Riot Games, whose League of Legends European Championship also struck a deal with NEOM, ended their partnership with the city development on July 29, 16 hours after it was announced.
When BLAST and Riot entered partnerships with NEOM in late July, social media was ablaze with criticism over Saudi Arabia's handling of LGBTQ+ rights and the land on which NEOM is being built, which is home to the Huwaitat indigenous tribe. Saudi Arabia follows Islamic Sharia Law, where being gay or transgender is illegal and has been punished by fines, public whipping, castrations and various forms of imprisonment, according to a report from The Guardian.
For Riot, the League European Championship broadcast team threatened to boycott the broadcast for the weekend of July 31 to Aug. 2 if Riot did not cancel the partnership. Several members of the broadcast team or staff of LEC teams identify with the LGBTQ+ community, including popular analyst Indiana "Froskurinn" Black and MAD Lions community manager James "Stress" O'Leary, who are gay.
Several top Counter-Strike talents followed suit, with BLAST drawing criticism from journalist Richard Lewis, analyst Duncan "Thorin" Shields, host Frankie Ward and others. Privately, many of the partner teams raised their concerns, sources told ESPN. Complexity Gaming CEO Jason Lake said on Twitter that he believed the matter should be dealt with privately first before public discourse began.